Gov. Barbour and the Scott Sisters: Better Justice in the New Year?

Every New Year most of us make good faith resolutions—some of us keep them.

Every New Year most of us have hopes for the coming year—some of us will realize some of those hopes.

One of my hopes is that there will better justice in our nation, in our world.

On this first day of the New Year, I have come across some indications—albeit “mixed” ones—that, at least in one case, we may be ending the old year and beginning the new one with good prospects.

I am talking about the sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott who are serving two consecutive life sentences each in a state prison in Mississippi for what Bob Herbert in the New York Times says was “their alleged role in a robbery in 1993 in which no one was hurt and $11 supposedly was taken.”

Solitary Watch has some more details:

On Christmas Eve of 1993, Jamie and Gladys, then 22 and 19, were both young mothers with no criminal records. They were at the local mini-mart buying heating fuel when they ran into two young men they knew, who offered to give them a ride. Sometime later that evening, the two young men were robbed by a group of three boys, ages 14 to 18, who arrived in another car, armed with a shotgun.

Jamie and Gladys say that they had already left the scene to walk home when the robbery took place, and had nothing to do with it. The state insisted they were an integral part of the crime, and in fact had set up the victims to be robbed. Wherever the truth lies, trial transcripts clearly reveal a the case based on the highly questionable testimony of two of the teenaged co-defendants–who had turned state’s evidence against the Scott sisters in return for eight-year sentences—and a prosecutor who appears determined to demonize the two young women.

Details of the subsequent events and of the trial can also be read here.

In the end,

It took the jury just 36 minutes to convict the Scott sisters. And while there was a range of possible sentences for the crime of armed robbery, the state asked for—and received—two consecutive life sentences for the Scott sisters. In contrast, Edgar Ray Killen, the man convicted in 2005 of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of civil rights workers Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, received a sentence of 60 years–meted out by the same judge who presided over the trial of Jamie and Gladys Scott.

Supporters of the Scott sisters call this sentencing “an extreme example of the distorted justice and Draconian sentencing policies that have overloaded prisons, crippled state budgets, and torn families apart across the United States.”

The Scott sisters have now spent 16 years in Mississippi prisons.

Jamie Scott, now 38, is suffering from kidney failure and her condition has become life threatening. She has diabetes and high blood pressure and receives dialysis at least three times a week. She urgently needs a kidney transplant. Her sister, Gladys Scott, has offered to donate a kidney to Jamie.

Jamie Scott’s family and legal advisors have sent pleas for clemency or compassionate release to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

Bob Herbert writes that Barbour’s “past record on pardons does not bode well for Jamie and Gladys Scott.”:

Barbour, who took office in 2004, was initially known for refusing to grant any pardons. In his second term he changed course–but only for a particular set of offenders. A 2008 investigation by the Jackson Free Press found that Barbour had pardoned or suspended the sentences of five murderers, four of whom had killed their former or current wives or girlfriends. All five men were part of a prison trusty program under which they did odd jobs at the governor’s mansion. Writing in Slate, Radley Balko summarized Haley Barbour’s policy on pardons as “show[ing] mercy only to murderers who work on his house.”

Nevertheless, Gov. Haley Barbour on Wednesday suspended the sentences of Jamie Scott and Gladys Scott.

Herbert clarifies that the prison terms were suspended — not commuted — on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie and adds that “to make [the donation of a kidney] a condition of her release was unnecessary, mean-spirited, inhumane and potentially coercive. It was a low thing to do.”

Governor Barbour said of the sisters: “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.”

To which Herbert says: “By all means, get those medical costs off the books if you can.”

Herbert goes on to criticize Barbour’s recent political comments and pronouncements (Yazoo City, etc.) and his pardoning of four killers and suspending the life sentence of a fifth: “So cold-blooded murder is no reason, in Mr. Barbour’s view, to keep the prison doors closed.”

He also credits the “extraordinary network of supporters who campaigned relentlessly over several years on their behalf” as the only reason the Scott sisters have gotten any relief at all.

Herbert concludes:

What is likely to get lost in the story of the Scott sisters finally being freed is just how hideous and how outlandish their experience really was. How can it be possible for individuals with no prior criminal record to be sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a crime in which no one was hurt and $11 was taken? Who had it in for them, and why was that allowed to happen?

The Scott sisters may go free, but they will never receive justice.

I tend to agree with Herbert that the message we get from Mississippi is a mixed one. However, on this first day of the New Year, let us “keep hope alive” and let us give Gov. Barbour at least the benefit of the doubt.

  

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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